Q: Did former President Barack Obama pardon Wendell Callahan, who was later accused of killing three people after his early release?
A: No. Congress unanimously passed a bill changing drug sentencing laws and Obama signed it. Callahan petitioned for early release under the new law and it was approved by a federal judge.
Is this true? Wendell Callahan Pardoned by Obama, Kills Three Victims.
On Aug. 25, President Donald Trump issued a presidential pardon for former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who had been convicted of criminal contempt of court for disobeying a judge’s order to stop detaining Hispanics suspected of illegally immigrating to the U.S., when there was no evidence that they had violated state law.
After Trump’s decision was met with backlash from critics, a number of conservative websites published stories wrongly claiming that former President Barack Obama had “pardoned” Wendell L. Callahan, a convicted drug dealer who was charged with murdering three people in 2016, over a year after he was released early from prison.
Facebook users flagged one such story on freedomdaily.com as potentially fabricated news. The headline says, “Remember When Obama Pardoned A Crack Dealer – Let’s Remind Democrats What He Did To 3 People After Being Released.” Another story on 100percentfedup.com was also flagged by Facebook users. Its headline reads, “DEMOCRATS CONVENIENTLY FORGET 6,000 Prisoners Obama Pardoned Including Crack Dealer Who Committed Horrific Crime Against 3 Innocent Americans.”
Both stories cite a March 2016 blog post from the conservative Judicial Watch to support the claim of an Obama pardon. But the post didn’t say that Obama pardoned Callahan or anyone else. Instead, the group wrote about the case of a convicted crack dealer who had been indicted for killing his ex-girlfriend and her two children after he was released from prison early under changes to the federal sentencing laws.
The Department of Justice says that a presidential pardon is “an expression of the President’s forgiveness and ordinarily is granted in recognition of the applicant’s acceptance of responsibility for the crime and established good conduct for a significant period of time after conviction or completion of sentence.” A pardon restores a convicted person’s civil abilities including the right to vote, hold public office and serve on a jury.
Obama, during his eight years as president, awarded presidential pardons to 212 people and he commuted the prison sentences of 1,715 others. Callahan was not one of them.
It’s true that Callahan, who was originally sentenced in 2007, was released from prison ahead of schedule in August 2014. The murders he was charged with committing occurred more than a year later. At the time, the Columbus Dispatch reported that Callahan likely would have still been in prison had federal sentencing guidelines not been changed.
Columbus Dispatch, Jan. 13, 2016: The man charged with killing an ex-girlfriend and two of her children in a North Side stabbing rampage early Tuesday likely would have been deep into a 12 1/2-year federal prison sentence if sentencing guidelines for convicted crack dealers had remained unchanged.
Wendell L. Callahan, 35, twice benefited from changes in federal sentencing guidelines, which reduced his sentence by a total of more than four years, from the 150 months he was first given in 2007, to 110 months in 2008 including time served, and to 100 months in 2011. …
The changes to his federal sentence came as part of retroactive attempts by the U.S. Sentencing Commission to rectify sentencing disparities between dealers who sold crack and those who dealt powdered cocaine. …
Federal prison records show that Callahan was released on Aug. 8, 2014. If the new federal guidelines hadn’t gone through, he likely would have been in prison at least until late this year, even with time off for good behavior.
Callahan’s last sentence reduction was made possible by the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which Obama supported and signed into law. The legislation reduced the large gap in the amount of prison time given for crack cocaine offenses versus powder cocaine by lowering the statutory penalties for crack cocaine and eliminating the mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of crack cocaine.
Judicial Watch faulted the Obama administration for pushing the legislation that led to Callahan being released from prison early, claiming it was “part of the Obama administration’s mass release of federal inmates.” But the fact is that the bill passed with unanimous, bipartisan support in both houses of Congress.
Plus, it was the U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent agency in the judicial branch, which voted to make parts of its guideline amendment implementing the law retroactive. That allowed federal judges to decide whether to reduce prison sentences for eligible inmates.
As the Columbus Dispatch reported: “In a 2011 motion for Callahan’s last reduction, Callahan’s attorney said federal prosecutors agreed that Callahan’s good behavior in prison and other factors led both sides ‘to conclude that his early release did not present a danger to the safety of the public.’ ” U.S. District Judge James Graham granted the motion on Nov. 8, 2011.
The Sentencing Commission had long been recommending that Congress change the drug sentencing laws. The Drug Policy Alliance reports that, as far back as 1995, the commission advocated for “equalizing penalties for crack and powder cocaine, without raising penalties for powder cocaine.”
White House. “President Trump Pardons Sheriff Joe Arpaio.” Whitehouse.gov. 25 Aug 2017.
Perez-Pena, Richard. “Former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio Is Convicted of Criminal Contempt.” New York Times. 31 Jul 2017.
VOA News. “Trump Facing Criticism After Pardon of Convicted Arizona Sheriff.” Voanews.com. 27 Aug 2017.
Fox News. “Paul Ryan, John McCain break with Trump on Arpaio pardon.” Fox News. 26 Aug 2017.
Decker, Theodore. “Man charged with killing woman, 2 daughters had early prison release.” Columbus Dispatch. 13 Jan 2016.
Associated Press. “Columbus man indicted in stabbings of ex-girlfriend, her 2 girls.” Mourningjournal.com. 1 Mar 2016.
Stevens, Kat. “Remember When Obama Pardoned A Crack Dealer – Let’s Remind Democrats What He Did To 3 People After Being Released.” Freedomdaily.com. Accessed 31 Aug 2017.
“DEMOCRATS CONVENIENTLY FORGET 6,000 Prisoners Obama Pardoned Including Crack Dealer Who Committed Horrific Crime Against 3 Innocent Americans.” 100percentfedup.com. 27 Aug 2017.
Judicial Watch. “Crack Dealer Freed Early Under Obama Plan Murders Woman, 2 Kids.” 2 Mar 2016.
Baker, Peter. “Obama Signs Law Narrowing Cocaine Sentencing Disparities.” New York Times. 3 Aug 2010.
“S.1789 – Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.” Govtrack.us. Accessed 1 Sep 2017.
U.S. Department of Justice. Frequently Asked Questions Concerning Executive Clemency. Accessed 1 Sep 2017.
U.S. Sentencing Commission. Frequently Asked Questions: 2011 Retroactive Crack Cocaine Guideline Amendment. Accessed 1 Sep 2017.
U.S. Sentencing Commission. “Sensible Sentencing Reform: The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.” Policy profile. Accessed 1 Sep 2017.
Drug Policy Association. “Disparate Justice: Crack/Powder Cocaine Disparity FAQ.” Drugpolicy.org. Accessed 31 Aug 2017.
U.S. Department of Justice. Clemency Statistics. Justice.gov. Accessed 1 Sep 2017.